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January 9, 2018


If there were one word to characterize this year’s selection of possible documentary Oscar nominees, it would have to be nihilism. From attacks on civilians in Raqqa and Aleppo to the greatest displacement of human populations across the globe in history to the abuse of justice in the Great Recession to the mendacity that plagues the once noble world of athletics to the biases of the health care system to that other monumentally entrenched injustice that is race in America to the ultimate and absolute nihilism that is global warming – documentaries sounded the clarion call. But if a documentary rattles the alarm and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

As much as Hollywood has embraced films based-on-a-true-story, much documentary film making has been relegated to cable and streaming services. In its preliminary round of voting, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected 15 films of the 170 submissions for Best Documentary Academy Award, many produced by Amazon Studios, Netflix, HBO, et al. I do not know to what extent these 15 documentaries (much less the other 155) were accessible, even to coastal audiences, but the only one to have appeared in my theaters in 2017 was Al Gore’s climate change follow-up, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.”

On January 23, the Academy will announce the five that will contend for the Best Documentary Oscar. If you are interested in watching the 15 shortlisted films, here is a guide to where you can stream (most of) them.

Endurance: “City of Ghosts,” “Last Men in Aleppo,” “Human Flow” and “One of Us”

Two Syrian war-related films made the Academy’s shortlist. “City of Ghosts,” a production of A & E/Amazon Studios, is directed by Matthew Heinmann, whose 2015 “Cartel Land” earned an Oscar nomination in 2016. “City of Ghosts” follows media activist group RBSS, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. One of the few reliable sources of news information from the region, RBSS started in 2014 with 17 citizen journalists. They are ISIL targets, yet persist in getting their stories to fellow Syrian RBSS activists housed in undisclosed locations in Germany so that they might inform the world. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

The 2016 British short documentary “The White Helmets,” directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, was awarded the Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 2017 Academy Awards. The film follows the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of volunteer rescue workers who triangulate the targets of air strikes in order to get to victims trapped in the rubble as quickly as possible. The White Helmets are again the subject, here in Feras Fayyad’s “Last Men in Aleppo,” which premiered on PBS’s series POV. This time the focus is narrowed, primarily to a man we know only as Khaled, and it is heartbreaking to see his despair even in his role as a loving, gentle father. Writing in the New York Times, Glenn Kenny says, “this is an essential film, but it is also a terribly dispiriting one. … ‘Last Men in Aleppo’ is likely to make you almost ashamed of your comforts and leave you with a feeling of impotence.” All the more reason to make every effort to see it. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Amazon Original Movie “Human Flow” is Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei’s sweeping examination of the human consequences of globalization. We are living through an unprecedented global refugee and migrant crisis. Ai takes us to the wandering lives of people in Israel and Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, as well as destinations in Europe and North America. In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes that Ai “wants to give you a sense of the scale of the crisis, its terrifying, world-swallowing immensity.” (Available soon for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “One of Us” is a Netflix Original documentary that follows three Hasidic Jews whose decision to leave their ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community means stepping out from under a world of comprehensive control and into an alien world of isolation. Etty, who is trying to protect herself and her children from an abusive husband, finds that her husband’s attorneys can manipulate the law to his advantage and separate her from her children. She finds some solace in the support group Footsteps, which offers help and encouragement to individuals seeking to escape the suffocation of codified Orthodox constraints. A teenager, who has begun to realize he has been taught next to nothing in his Orthodox schools, cuts his hair and tentatively ventures into the world beyond his neighborhood. When he discovers Wikipedia, he describes it as “a gift from God.” Luzer, a struggling actor, has made it all the way to LA, but among the consequences of his departure have been a complete rupture with his family and estrangement from his children. We leave the three with the sense each will find a way to come to terms with independence. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

Injustice: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “Icarus” and “Unrest”
Steve James’s “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” which originally aired as part of PBS’s Frontline series, chronicles the gross injustice Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. brought against the Sung family in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. For decades, Abacus, the Song’s federal savings bank in New York’s Chinatown, has served an immigrant community other financial institutions routinely turn away. James’s award-winning documentary work spans 30 years and includes titles familiar to documentary viewers. 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” looks at two Chicago high schoolers who dream of becoming pro players; 2002’s “Stevie” explores James’s own reunion with a boy he mentored through the Advocate Big Brother program; 2004’s seven-hour PBS series “The New Americans,” surveys the lives of several immigrants over the course of four years; 2006’s “The War Tapes” investigates the invasion of Iraq, filmed by the soldiers themselves; 2011’s “The Interrupters” follows individuals who try to stave off violence in Chicago communities; 2012’s “Head Games” delves into the devastating consequences of sports concussions; and 2014’s “Life Itself” presents a biographical homage to the late film critic Roger Ebert. “Abacus” brings the same sense of humanity and community that James shines on stories too often buried beneath the headlines. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.)

If you doubt Russia interfered in the 2016 election, you will learn that such meddling may have been small potatoes compared to its intricately designed athletic doping cover-up in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Bryan Fogel is a playwright who also happens to be an avid amateur cyclist. His first run at the Haute Route, the Tour de France of the amateur cycling world, coincided with the breaking story of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. With “Icarus,” Fogel chronicles his decision to investigate doping using himself as his subject. What starts as a fairly routine Morgan Spurlock-esque immersion story takes a cloak and dagger turn when Fogel is put in contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian chemist who ran his country’s accredited anti-doping operation. Rodchenkov, a charmingly charismatic fellow, and Fogel forge an abiding friendship, and in the process, Rodchenkov risks everything to blow the lid off Russia’s comprehensive, state-sanctioned conspiracy. The epitaph that opens “Icarus” is attributed to George Orwell: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Once Rodchenkov arrives in the United States, with a well-worn copy of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the film’s structure takes on an eerie Orwellian progression. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

In 2011, after a high fever, Jennifer Brea fell victim to myalgic encephalomyelitis, more commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome. The disease is characterized by, among other symptoms, joint and muscle pain, digestive issues, extreme light and noise sensitivity and cognitive problems. “Unrest” is Brea’s video diary of her ensuing battle with the disease and of the struggles of other sufferers she has met online. Yet a subtext emerges, as the narrative unfolds, about the biases that inform medical practice. In part its unfortunate nomenclature (chronic fatigue) has made it too easy for the general public and the medical community alike to write patients off as delusional, lazy or both. Though the disease afflicts almost twice as many people as multiple sclerosis, dollars devoted to research are a tiny fraction of those spent on MS and on other chronic afflictions. Anyone touched by this maddeningly elusive disease should be gladdened by Brea’s courage in telling her unvarnished story. (Available for streaming through purchase only on Amazon Prime Video.)

Race: “LA 92” and “Strong Island”

If you are of a certain age, middle-aged at least, you can probably remember the events of the spring of 1992. An all-white jury found two of the four officers indicted for use of excessive force in the beating of Rodney King guilty. They both were sentenced to 30 months in prison. The other two officers were exonerated. The day the verdicts were handed down, April 29, rioting began in the streets of Los Angeles. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “LA 92,” which premiered on the National Geographic Channel, bookends its narrative with the 1965 Watts riots, and tells the story of the events of 1992 through archival footage, as raw today as it was 25 years ago. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Another story from 1992, and one with which you are likely unfamiliar, is more personal. That same spring, on April 7, 24-year-old William Ford Jr., an unarmed black man, was killed by 19-year-old Mark Reilly, a white auto mechanic. Allegedly, in the course of a dispute over Ford’s car’s repair, Reilly insulted Ford’s mother. When confronted, Reilly pulled out a shot gun. The grand jury handed over a “No True Bill,” a legal procedure to dismiss charges against a defendant when the panelists believe there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Yance Ford, now a transgender man, was William’s younger sister, and “Strong Island,” 10 years in the making, is his meditation on what happened that night and the repercussions the event has had on the family dynamic in the ensuing years. “Strong Island” relates an intensely personal story that examines what is known of objective facts while mining the emotional currents that shape those facts, and bravely confronts complex questions of guilt and innocence. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

Climate: “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” and “Chasing Coral”

If Al Gore sounds frustrated in “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” can you blame him? The documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is, as its title spells out, a sequel to 2016’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which was a rather wonkish approach to laying out the threat of global warming. That is a statement, not a criticism, because if in-your-face activism, time-lapse photography, or Werner Herzog’s suicidal penguin (“Encounters at the End of the World,” 2007) can’t make you get it, maybe a wonky method will. There are moments in “Sequel” when Gore loses his wonkish cool. Again, can you blame him? (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

In 2012, documentarian Jeff Orlowski released “Chasing Ice.” The film follows James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey project, which, in 2007, began monitoring 24 of the world’s largest glaciers as they melted before the team’s very eyes. In “Chasing Coral,” a Netflix Original documentary, Orlowski teams up with Richard Vevers, CEO of The Ocean Agency, which the former advertising professional founded after something of a midlife crisis. He reasoned that the fact that most of us do not see below the ocean’s surface is one of its liabilities, and that mediating on its behalf would be a superior life purpose to advocating for 3-ply toilet paper. Every player in this riveting film is passionate, from Ruth Gates, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology; to Dr. C. Mark Eakin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who directs Coral Reef Watch; to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute and Professor of Marine Science at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia; among many others. But the most magnetic is Zackery Rago, a long-time aquarist and scuba diver with View Into the Blue, a tech company that manufactures underwater camera systems and monitoring instruments. Zack’s love for coral is palpable on the screen, and when he mourns its loss, you would have to be made of stone not to mourn it, too. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)

On a Happier Note: “Long Strange Trip,” “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” “Faces Places” and “Jane”

The six-part documentary about the Grateful Dead, “Long Strange Trip,” is, indeed, long. It feels as though director Amir Bar-Lev has ferreted out every reel, every snippet, every snap ever taken of the band, which, if you are a diehard dead-head might interest you. For this viewer, however, a big fan of rock documentaries and concert films, it was a long slog. Use your streaming services to take a more fruitful trip down memory lane with some of the masterworks of the genre – D. A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back,” “Monterey Pop” and “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”); Jim Jarmusch (“Year of the Horse”); Michael Wadleigh (“Woodstock”); or Martin Scorsese ("The Last Waltz”); among many other great rock documentaries. (Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

These last three I was unable to screen:

“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” sounds like a documentary dream come true. For starters, it is directed by the great Frederick Wiseman, who has worked in the form since the 1960s, covering scores of subjects. Writing about Wiseman’s 2014 “National Gallery” for, Glenn Kenny remarks, “It simply won’t do to call [him] a documentarian. Even film critics and film lovers who normally aren’t all that actively/avidly enthusiastic about the documentary feature as a form…have to give it up for Wiseman.” What Wiseman documents in “Ex Libris” is an institution invented for books at a time when the book may be destined, if not to obsolescence, at least to obscurity. (Unavailable at this time.)

Agnes Varda, now 89 years old and one of the leading figures of the French New Wave, and 33-year-old French photographer and muralist JR co-directed “Faces Places.” Varda and JR hit the road in JR’s photo truck. Tooling through the French countryside, they encounter locals and listen to their stories. JR produces larger-than-life portraits that he displays on houses, barns, storefronts and trains, while Varda documents their adventure. (Unavailable at this time.)

When Jane Goodall, at age 26, first ventured into the forest to study chimpanzees, I was seven, and by the time National Geographic’s 1965 documentary “Jane Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” narrated by Orson Welles, came out, I was 12, so I feel I have grown up knowing Goodall most of my life. That film came from footage shot by wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who would later become Goodall’s first husband. According to Ben Kenigsberg’s review for the New York Times, National Geographic Studios’ new film “Jane,” directed by Brett Morgen, “draws on more than 100 rediscovered hours from National Geographic’s archives. The abundant raw material allows Mr. Morgen to construct the impression of a complete narrative arc,” Kenigsberg continues, “and to show the tedious work of gaining the trust of the chimps and collecting data in fast forward, conveying the excitement of scientific discovery with adventure-movie momentum.” (Available for Amazon Prime Video purchase on January 23, 2018, and available now for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, but only with Fire TV or Fire TV Stick.)

August 24, 2017


If you missed the movingly sweet indie film “Brigsby Bear,” you are not alone. My theater cancelled their scheduled weekend showings after a negligible audience for its opening Friday, though they did allow it a 4:00 p.m. showing the following Monday and Wednesday afternoons before sending it on its way.

That’s a real shame because Kyle Mooney (who also stars) and Kevin Costello’s screenplay, directed by Dave McCary, is one of the most charming little gems to come along in a while. Mooney and McCary, along with Beck Bennett and Nick Rutherford, came together in 2007 to form the sketch comedy group, Good Neighbor, and since 2013, Mooney has been a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” where McCary works as a segment director. That sounds like a lot of extraneous information, but if it isn’t clear to you as you watch just what a labor of friendship and ensemble work “Brigsby Bear” is, the filmmakers make it clear in the credits, where, in addition to a cast and crew who wore multiple hats, a slew of “Utah Volunteers” are thanked for their contributions.

The premise of “Brigsby Bear” is, on its surface, a grim one. James was abducted as an infant, and has lived his 20-something years in an underground bunker with his abductor parents, Ted and April Mitchum (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams). Throughout his life, each week like clockwork, a new episode of a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear” arrives on video cassette.

“Brigsby Bear” the film risks comparisons with Peter Weir’s 1998 “The Truman Show” but the films differ in important respects. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) has been abducted by a faceless corporation. James’s abductors, despite the heinousness of their crime, obviously dote on their ward. Whereas Truman is the unwitting star of 24-7 reality show for an audience of voyeurs, “Brigsby Bear” the show is initially an educational tool for James, ala Sesame Street, with episodes designed to teach math or spelling or geography or good manners. While “The Truman Show” is about a kind of soul-sucking corporate cynicism, not a single frame of “Brigsby Bear” betrays an air of world-weariness or disenchantment.

As James has grown over the years, so “Brigsby Bear” the show and its iconography and mythological narrative have grown, too, becoming more nuanced and complex. Its plot twists have evolved and its secret vocabulary has flourished. James can recite by heart the almost 1,000 episodes better than the most hardcore “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fan. His room is a shrine to Brigsby with every variety of fandom collateral possible. Aside from the Mitchum’s, whom he will later describe as pretty boring, James’s reality – imaginary and literal – is the universe of “Brigsby Bear.”

One night, James puts on his gas mask – to protect from an atmosphere he has been taught is toxic – so he can sneak out and sit on top of the bunker entrance. As he gazes out at the imaginary creatures with which Ted has populated the bunker entrance, a fleet of police cars comes racing toward him lights flashing lights, sirens screaming -- sights and sounds he has never before seen nor heard. Suddenly, he is abducted back into the real world.

Mooney plays James as an arrested, overly excitable ten-year-old, at times seemingly somewhere on the autism spectrum. A sensitive Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) tries to explain the circumstances to the bewildered James. When James is united with his birth parents, Greg and Louise Pope (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), they try to create something like normalcy, but as well-meaning as those efforts are, they can sometimes seem downright cruel through James’s eyes. To complicate things further, Greg and Louise have a daughter (Ryan Simpkins) – a teenager resentful at losing standing as an only child and embarrassed by a weirdo who talks about nothing but an imaginary character while day after day donning a Brigsby T-shirt.

Just as it begins to seem to Greg and Louise – as it does to us – that the attempt to integrate James – despite everyone’s best efforts and James’s intrinsic good nature – is not going to turn out well, we sense that James is taking in more than the adults are giving him credit for and something happens. First, Greg takes James to a movie, the first time he has ever seen anything projected on the big screen. Second, sister Aubrey grudgingly lets James tag along to a party she’s going to with a girlfriend. Their friend Spence (an endearing Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is there and is the first person to genuinely and intuitively engage with James. After seeing the movie, James had asked his father, who is the person who makes movies? His father explains that many people make movies, not just one. For James the answer is revelatory. If lots of people make movies, he can make a movie, and when it turns out Spence is an amateur filmmaker of sorts, James sets out to continue the story of Brigsby Bear.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Spence and Kyle Mooney as James in "Brigsby Bear"
“Brigsby Bear” is more than a self-reflexive movie, more than a movie about making a movie. It is more than paean to the magic of movies. It is a hymn to the transcendent power of creativity, especially that pure creative energy of childhood imagination. Brigsby Bear’s nemesis is a huge sun, a sun that looks like nothing so much as the pioneering filmmaker George Méliès’s iconic Man in the Moon in his 1902 “A Trip to the Moon” – we might call him the Man in the Sun, though in the Brigsby world he is Sun Snatcher. Brigsby, looking like a cross between a teddy bear and a 1960s astronaut, does not himself possess super powers – excepting his kindness, bravery and wisdom – but the objects he wields have special properties, and the saga of Brigsby and his world rivals the creations of a J. R. R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling.

This pitiable attempt at a synopsis falls completely flat in the face of a film that is an unbridled celebration of creation, collaboration, friendship, love and forgiveness. Quite simply, “Brigsby Bear” is the tale of an unworldly young man come to earth who offers the possibility of redemption to all who open their hearts to him. Yes, this little treasure didn’t make it to the multiplex, but if the DVD is released in time, put enough by to stuff every stocking on your holiday list.

In theaters in limited release.
No official release date yet for DVD and/or Blu-ray. Based on the average time between opening day and home entertainment releases, Movie Insider’s unofficial estimate is around December 2017.


August 22, 2017


“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” Elvis Presley

If there are antidotes to Charlottesville, one may be “Step,” the new documentary from Amanda Lipitz that won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2017 AFI Docs festival. The film tells the remarkable story of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The school opened its doors to sixth graders in 2009. In the spring of 2016, its inaugural class was preparing to graduate.

 “Step” follows three young women as they train on the step team, known as the Lethal Ladies, with the goal of winning an extramural competition, and as they pursue their academic studies with the goal of securing college acceptance. The former objective is led by dedicated coaches, the latter by the stalwart support of the Upper School Principal and the commitment of one of the school’s counselors, Paula Dofat.

“Step” focuses on Blessin Giraldo, whose mother suffers almost crippling depression; Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian whose mother has recently remarried; and Tayla Solomon, who struggles with her grades even as her demanding corrections officer mother acts not only as her daughter’s booster, but the entire step teams’.  All of the girls’ parents appear to be genuinely loving, but in the face of students whose academic struggles are exacerbated by precarious economic circumstances, the complexities of the college applications process, and the seemingly insurmountable challenge of financial aid, it is the school’s principal, coaches and counselors who emerge as the heroes of the story.

Their indefatigable efforts on the girls’ behalf can seem herculean at times. They refuse excuses and self-pity yet show unlimited depths of compassion and tough love to see their charges through to BLSYW’s mission: that each and every graduate will win college admission, a goal this inaugural BLSYW graduating class has attained. A commencement speaker reminds them that this achievement is not shared by most schools in the United States.

Blessin, despite being the step team’s original organizer, is the most challenged by the demands of discipline, both on the team and in the classroom. Ms. Dofat, speaking to admissions representatives from a bridge school program on Blessin’s behalf, becomes visibly emotional and apologizes. “I’m sorry,” she says wiping away tears. “This is so unprofessional.” One can’t blame her – so much of her professional life and emotional being are wrapped up in the lives and potential of the girls.

“Step” could be faulted for coming off as a feel-good documentary, but there is always an open spot in my heart for documentaries and based-on-a-true-story accounts about the power of education and the arts to shape young people for the good. Indeed, as a life-long educator, it has been my experience that when we raise the bar and demand excellence, not all but most young people rise to the challenge. 

In “The Great Debaters” (2007) Denzel Washington resurrected the story of Melvin B. Tolson who led the debate team of the historically black Wiley College to victory in the 1930s. Katie Dellamoggiore’s 2012 “Brooklyn Castle” trained its lens on Intermediate School 318, an inner-city public school in Brooklyn, New York, where an after-school chess program produced the top junior high school chess team in the country and the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation's national high school championship.

Two 2015 films focused on schools with predominantly Latino students. For champions of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) model that is being so forcefully advanced these days, Sean McNamara’s uplifting “Spare Parts” is a dramatic film based on Oscar Vasquez, the Carl Hayden High School teacher who steered the engineering club in Phoenix, Arizona, to win first place over M.I.T. in the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center remotely operated vehicle competition. For champions of sport, Niki Caro’s “McFarland, USA” is also a dramatic film based on McFarland High School Coach Jim White and the Latino cross country team he created from scratch and trained to win the 1987 California state championship.

My favorites are documentaries that focus on the arts, like “Step” and Amy Sewell’s 2005 “Mad Hot Ballroom” about a ballroom dance program in the New York City public school system for fifth graders in the Tribeca, Bensonhurst and Washington Heights neighborhoods that culminates in a city-wide competition.

The Baltimore Leadership School was established in partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, and all of these examples demonstrate the equalizing – and transformative – effects public education can have when its possibilities are embraced by bold teachers and students committed to something larger than themselves. As we face the demolition of public education in the United States, films like these are powerful reminders of what it is we are in the process of giving up.

In select theaters
On DVD and Blu-Ray December 2017

August 9, 2017


What is time but loss? Loss of youth, of companionship. The process of becoming and of declining. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is about time and loss and opens with an epigram, the first line of Virginia Woolf’s story “A Haunted House”: “Whatever hour you woke up there was another door shutting.” Woolf’s story might better be described as a prose poem. At 1,949 words, it does not tell a story as much as sketch an atmosphere, and you – the reader, the necessary reader of the tale – are set within the narrative from that first sentence. Then, “From room to room they went…a ghostly couple.”

“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”

But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself …. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?”

Narrator and reader blur, and “us” (“But it wasn’t that you woke us.”), the narrator and her husband we are to assume, cohabit with the ghostly couple in their house, ghosts who “seek their joy,” “the Treasure” buried in the room – a treasure, we quickly realize, that is not any material thing but the memory and the love they made together in the house “hundreds of years ago.”

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
Like “A Haunted House,” “A Ghost Story” is and is not a ghost story and like Woolf's tale, is ultimately a love story. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play M and C, a couple living in a house somewhere. He wants to stay because he feels a sense of the history they have together there. She wants to move, and his unwillingness to discuss their future weighs on their relationship. Then he dies in an auto accident and is on a table in a morgue. The camera frames the viewing room and his body under the sheet, until, after she sees him for the final time and departs, he rises slowly from the table. The camera sits, not for seconds but for minutes.

Lowery renders the ghost, not as ectoplasm or vortex or translucent dismembered head, but reduced to a child’s Halloween costume – a mere sheet with cutouts for the eyes. The sheeted ghost is fitting for a deceptively simple plot: A man dies and his ghost has nowhere to go but home. In fact, the austerity of Lowery’s cinematic effects contributes, like Woolf’s elusive syntax and carefully measured vocabulary, to a narrative arc that moves from lyrical to symphonic in a mere 92 minutes. Lowery employs ghost story tropes – tracking shots down empty hallways; a creaking door; buzzing, flickering lights; an unexpected crash or two – but nothing that might cause fright.

The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo has an almost monochromatic feel in the interior shots, but when the story ventures out of doors, the landscapes are rich and vast. Lowery asked that Daniel Hart’s haunting original score draw inspiration from Woolf’s story, and the concluding piece “Safe, Safe, Safe” echoes the sibilance and the comfort that the line imparts to Woolf’s tale. Again and again, the score incorporates the Picardy third – raising the third of an expected minor triad by a semitone to create a major triad resolution. This produces an effect of joyousness when our expectation is melancholy. Not surprisingly, then, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” will figure into the thematic concerns of the film, as well.

“A Ghost Story” is structured in juxtapositions of montage sequences and static shots. In the era of the fast-cut, Lowery is not afraid for the camera to do nothing but record. An establishing medium long shot becomes the static point of view for an entire scene. Not only does this challenge our conventional contemporary movie-going experience, the approach imposes the experience of time on us. For many, movies are a means of escape, and escapism is to be distracted from the experience of time. That terrible, almost tragic, expression about killing time expresses a desire to kill something so dearly precious and limited to each of us. Lowery seeks, instead, to intensify the experience of time, and then, by contrast, move us through a series of montages that communicate the passage of days, then years, then centuries.

It is impossible not to see in Lowery’s atmospheric visual style and melancholic lyricism an unmistakable homage to Terrence Malick. Some critics argued this made his 2013 feature debut “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which he also wrote and directed and which also stars Mara and Affleck, merely derivative and uninspired, but there was something brewing in it that augered more. In “A Ghost Story,” Lowery has rendered a transporting meditation on time and human experience, and though Malik’s influence is evident, Lowery explores similar thematic elements with an elegant economy of emotion and duration in stark contrast to Malik’s excesses witnessed in all their grandeur in the 2011, intensely autobiographical “Tree of Life.”

Beginning with Malick in the 1970s, a certain subset of directors emerged from Texas – including Julian Schnabel and Richard Linklater – a subset that Lowery with “A Ghost Story” may be destined to join. Malick was born in Illinois in 1943 but attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal boarding school in Austin, Texas, and most of his films exude a sense isolation experienced in the soft light of the Texas Plains. Brooklyn-born (1951) transplant to Brownsville, Texas, the New York-based painter Julian Schnabel’s 2007 “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a profound meditation on the capacity of loss to heighten experience and on the mind’s ability to make time non-linear. His new cinematic project “At Eternity’s Gate,” about Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) and his time in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, Schnabel describes as “…a film about painting and a painter, and their relationship to infinity.”

Richard Linklater was born in Houston, Texas, in 1960, and the Linklater films that interest me most are those that take on issues of time and our place in it: the animated “Waking Life” (2001), which questions the nature of reality, consciousness, free will and existence itself; the “Before” trilogy filmed over the course of 18 years – “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), and “Before Midnight” (2013); and the logical – though radical – extension of the trilogy concept, 2014’s “Boyhood” filmed over the course  of 11 years. This approach – the examination of time through real time – is Linklater’s signature method, and one wonders where it might take him next.

The 36-year-old Lowery hails from Texas, too. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the family moved to Irving, Texas when Lowery was seven. Whether as an effect of the landscape of the southernmost region of the Great Plains, the proximity to the Atlantic Gulf or the sheer size of the state, Malick, Schnabel, Linklater – and now Lowery – share an interest in our experience of time – the fact that we are trapped in it while possessed of the inventiveness, if not to transcend it, at least to reimagine it. Taking very different approaches, each director contemplates the existential experience of time and its companion, loss.

Eternity is both tragic and majestically mysterious. Not long after our ghost has returned to his house, he goes to a window that looks out onto the window of the house next door where he sees a similarly sheeted ghost inside. The two ghosts exchange wordless hellos, understanding each other telepathically. The neighbor ghost explains that she’s waiting for someone. Our ghost asks, “Who?” “I don’t remember,” she replies.

Casey Affleck as C. Photo Credit: Bret Curry. Courtesy of A24
In the conclusion to his review of “A Ghost Story” for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane describes the point after the two now empty, decrepit houses are bulldozed as “the saddest detail of all”: The two ghosts stand amidst their respective rubble, and the neighbor ghost says (whom I refer to above as “she”), “‘I don’t think they’re coming.’ At this precise instant, he folds—just crumples and drops, leaving nothing but a wrinkled sheet on the ground. The waiting was all he had. I must have watched special effects worth hundreds of millions of dollars this year, but nothing has rent the heart as much as this plain low-budget collapse, and it makes you wonder: Was that a soul in Purgatory, and is he now at peace? Or do the dead themselves pass on, living here until their hopeless cause expires, and dying thus around us every day?”

I agree with Lane about the intensity of this moment sans any CGI ostentation, but I did not find it altogether sad. Rather, I read this scene as one of hope. Neither that some greater force condemns us to a Purgatory from which we are released after a designated time nor that we die a second literal kind of death. Might there be hope in choice, in our own agency to give ourselves up to a cycle that is universal and eternal?

In an early scene, M explains to C that, as she has moved from house to house through life, she leaves a tiny note hidden in each – something it is in our human nature to do – leave a piece of ourselves behind, something that says “I was here.” This theme, the desire to leave our mark, circles through “A Ghost Story,” and in that regard, the film is also a story about art – and what is art but an expression of love. Perhaps it is only great artists who leave a mark with any meaningful impact, but we all make some gesture, even if it’s just a tiny slip of paper that carries our handwriting pushed into a crack in the woodwork by which we hope to be remembered. Yet in time, even memory will be lost. We will no longer remember those we’ve loved and lost. But time will go inexorably on – in its grandeur and its indifference.

“A Ghost Story”
In select theaters.

DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Redbox release date October 3, 2017.


Though there are many good biopics and films based-on-a-true-story (and many bad ones), I have long maintained that it is almost impossible to make a great one. Some have transcended. Alan Pakula’s  1976 “All the President’s Men,” David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man,” Mike Nichols’s 1983 “Silkwood,” Milos Foreman’s 1984 “Amadeus,” Jim Sheridan’s 1989 “My Left Foot,” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 “GoodFellas,” Roman Polanski’s 2002 “The Pianist,” Terry George’s 2004 “Hotel Rwanda,” Sean Penn’s 2007 “Into the Wild,” Julian Schnabel's 2007 "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Danny Boyle’s 2010 “127 Hours” come to mind. Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which opened last week, is another. Considering the glut of based-on-a-true-story films these days, however, the chance that one will stand out in the crowd is rare.

The problem is one of artistic license, which writers (take Shakespeare’s history plays, examples par excellence) and filmmakers used to have until 1989, the year Oliver Stone was slammed for “Born on the Fourth of July.” The film initially met with a warm critical reception, but Diana West’s 1990 article for The Washington Times, “Does ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ Lie?,” was typical of the ensuing onslaught. Based on the autobiography by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, “Born on the Fourth of July” encountered a barrage of criticism for everything from collapsing multiple characters into one or inventing characters altogether to outright falsifying the record. More recently, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) faced similar reproofs. “Selma” confronted a further challenge in that, since it was not based on autobiography, the personal story had to be conjectured while the overarching historical narrative was expected to be accurate.

Since 1990, film makers have deployed variously worded disclaimers to avoid a torrent of accusations of inaccuracy. Closing credits end with statements along the lines of: "This story is based on actual events. Some incidents, characters and timelines have been altered for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites or fictitious."

Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Of the protagonists in the films singled out above, none is a personality with whom we share an intimate, albeit public, familiarity. The better we know the public figure, the more iconic the personality, the more artistic license becomes proportionally constrained. Franklin Schaffer’s 1970 “Patton,” Michael Apted’s 1980 “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (Loretta Lynn), Richard Attenborough’s 1982 “Gandhi,” Julie Taymor’s 2002 “Frida” (Frida Kahlo), Taylor Hackford’s 2004 “Ray” (Ray Charles), Bennett Miller’s 2004 “Capote,” James Mangold’s 2005 “Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), Olivier Dahan’s 2007 “La Vie en Rose” (Edith Piaf), Gus Van Sant’s 2008 “Milk” (Harvey Milk), Steven Spielberg’s 2012 “Lincoln,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), Danny Boyle’s 2015 “Steve Jobs” – superior films all and each received – deserved – critical acclaim. One wonders, however, to what degree one’s own and the critics’ enthusiasms are based primarily on the degree to which the starring performers pass as the actual historic personage. Honestly, have you ever seen a satisfactory portrayal of JFK? (Todd Haynes’s 2007 “I’m Not There,” in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a myriad of actors and actresses, is a notable – and admirably creative – exception to this rule.)

All that by way of introduction to Aisling Walsh’s film “Maudie.” The Irish director is best known in Britain for her BAFTA TV Award-nominated work on the two-part miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel “Fingersmith” (available on Netflix DVD), also starring Sally Hawkins.

Though based-on-a-true-story, “Maudie” follows the largely imagined life of Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis. The bare bones of Maud’s story are just that – bare. Born in 1903 to John and Agnes Dowley in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Maud was diagnosed early on with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother taught her to draw Christmas cards to sell. John died in 1935, Agnes in 1937. When her brother sold the family house, Maud was sent to live with her aunt in nearby Digby. There she met Everett Lewis, an itinerant fishmonger whom she married shortly thereafter in 1938. He bought Maud her first artist’s brushes and paint. They reportedly shared a devoted relationship, living in Everett’s nine by ten and a half foot house in Marshalltown, from which Maud sold paintings that gained notoriety in the 1960s. She died in 1970; Everett lived until 1979.

Sherry White wrote the screenplay for "Maudie," and in an interview for the Halifax Chronicle Herald (February 26, 2015) says she “became frustrated when [Maud’s] story seemed like a biopic.” White explains that “[I]t was feeling like a movie of the week. Eventually, I focused on the love story…. …. I wanted to believe it was a love story and they were two outsiders who found each other.” Walsh and White benefited from a dearth of biographical information, detail that might otherwise shackle their narrative. They were free to construct a story for Maud and Everett to inhabit as characters, and they took full advantage of dramatic license to create a compelling narrative with a rich backstory for Maud that informs the middle-aged character we meet onscreen. White wanted Maud to be a “character who is determined to have a life of her own, determined to find happiness despite the fact life is challenging for her and beats her down. She’s infectious in how she sees [the positive in] the world….”

Sally Hawkins plays Maud, Ethan Hawke plays Everett and, as the film dictates, they should be understood as characters – not as literal incarnations of actual people. Much of the power of Hawkins’s performance derives from the fact that she refuses to play Maud as a naïf. Maud is quiet yet headstrong, demurring yet shrewd. She has had the misfortune to grow up with a physical infirmity that others have misattributed as intellectually deficiency. The screenplay depicts Everett as an illiterate loner, and Hawke rises to the challenge of maintaining a coarse, churlish exterior while revealing a man capable – albeit cautiously and despite an occasional sadistic outburst – of devotion and genuine affection.

Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins as Everett and Maud Lewis in "Maudie"
Ever the keen observer, when it becomes apparent to her that Everett does not always keep track of his fish deliveries, Maud offers a system for keeping track without suggesting any failing on Everett’s part. In response to Everett’s reluctance to marry (an attitude apparently not shared by the real-life Everett), Maud signs her paintings “Maud Lewis” well before they tie the knot. She persists, and in his own way, he does, too.

White says, “You don’t normally see love stories about characters who are not the typical beautiful people.” This is so true, especially of American cinema, and one of the reasons foreign films are often so refreshing, absent as they sometimes are of overly pretty people. It took an Irish director, a Canadian writer, and an English actress to shape in “Maudie,” not an eccentric caricature, but an indelible portrait of endurance and generosity of spirit.

In selected theaters.
Home Entertainment Unofficial Release Dates:
Digital/On Demand (VOD) September 2017

DVD/Blu-Ray October 2017

April 21, 2017


“All wars are waged against children.” Eglantyne Jebb, British social reformer and author of “Declaration of the Rights of the Child” (1876-1928)

Two of the finest World War II films ever made are Austrian filmmaker Bernhard Wicki’s “The Bridge” (“Die Brücke”) and Soviet Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov’s 1985 “Come and See.” Wicki’s film, based on Gregor Dorfmeister’s 1958 novel of the same name and based on actual events, was released in 1959, a mere 15 years after World War II ended, when the experiences of war would have been fresh in the German memory.

“The Bridge” tells the story of an incident in the closing days of the war. Seven schoolboys are recruited into a local army unit, but after only one day in the barracks, the commanding officers receive news that the Americans are approaching, and the garrison is called out. Because the boys’ teacher has beseeched the Kompaniechef to keep the boys out of action, he arranges for them to be positioned at the local bridge, ostensibly to defend it, but under the command of a veteran Unteroffizier, the strategically unimportant bridge is to be blown up to spare the village the Allied advance.
Bernhard Wicki's 1959 "The Bridge"
Just as the boys settle in, the Unteroffizier leaves to give the demolition squad its orders. When a Feldgendarmerie patrol mistakes him for a deserter, he panics and attempts to escape. They shoot, leaving the boys on the bridge incommunicado, and the stage set for tragedy. With no order to retreat, the boys stalwartly guard the bridge and uphold the military code: “A soldier who defends just one square meter of ground defends Germany.”

Shot in black and white by Gerd von Bonin and brilliantly edited by Carl Otto Bartning, the “The Bridge” won numerous awards though lost the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film to Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus.”

“Come and See” was released in 1985, but Klimov had begun work on the screenplay with Ales Adamovich in 1977 as “The 40th anniversary of the Great Victory was approaching. ….

“I had been reading and rereading the book 'I Am from the Burning Village,' which consisted of the first-hand accounts of people who miraculously survived the horrors of the fascist genocide in Belorussia. Many of them were still alive then…. I will never forget the face and eyes of one peasant, and his quiet recollection about how his whole village had been herded into a church, and how just before they were about to be burned, an officer of the Sonderkommando gave them the offer: ‘Whoever has no children can leave.’ And he couldn't take it, he left, and left behind his wife and little kids... or about how another village was burned: the adults were all herded into a barn, but the children were left behind. And later, the drunk men surrounded them with sheepdogs and let the dogs tear the children to pieces.

“And then I thought: the world doesn't know about Khatyn! They know about Katyn, about the massacre of the Polish officers there. But they don't know about Belorussia. Even though more than 600 villages were burned there!”

“Come and See” is set in 1943. Just as the Germans had no men left to conscript toward the end of the war, so the Russian Red Army had fewer and fewer appropriately aged soldiers and began to conscript young boys and elderly men.* “Come and See” is the account of one young boy who is literally dragged from his mother’s arms and thrown in with a platoon of Russian soldiers in the waning days of the war. We experience the film, we see it, through his eyes, and a harrowing view it is – almost as hard for us to process as it is for him. The film is close to dialog-less. The words, the syntax, the semiotics, do not exist to describe the chaos, the carnage and the utter meaninglessness of it. All the boy can do, all Klimov can do, all we can do is to bear witness.

Elem Klimov's 1985 "Come and See"
We in the West – the United States and Europe – wince at the conscription of children into rebel militias in African nations, as if it were a barbaric practice of which we are innocent. Yet, though not enlisted compulsorily, boys as young as 12 enlisted in the British Army during World War I, some to fulfil a youthful ideal of patriotism, others because alternative prospects for survival seemed infinitely more grim. In 1924, after World War I, the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child to protect children “against every form of exploitation.” The problem was that no definition of “child” was universally recognized by the outbreak of World War II.

By the fall of 1941, much of the Soviet Red Army was destroyed and desperate for new divisions. Underage Soviet teenagers, in thrall to patriotic fervor (and superior food rations), wanted to fight the Germans. Some joined at nine or eleven and stayed with their regiments until they were discharged at fourteen or sixteen, often with medals of honor. The Germans, too, removed huge numbers of German youths from school in early 1945. They were sent on what can only be described as suicide missions.

Into this context comes Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet’s 2015 “Land of Mine,” among the nominees for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film’s Danish title is “Under sandet,” and it is a shame distributors did not opt for the literal translation “Under the Sand,” which possesses a certain poetry the clumsy, double-meaning “Land of Mine” lacks. With “The Bridge” and “Come and See,” “Land of Mine” could round out a perfectly curated trilogy on the unwitting child warriors of World War II’s European Theater.

It is May 1945. The Germans have surrendered. The Allies determine that disarmed German soldiers are not prisoners of war but “Surrendered Military Personnel” (SEP, the British designation) or “disarmed enemy forces” (DEF, the American designation) who have surrendered unconditionally. Therefore, the Geneva Convention, which guards against prisoner of war abuses, can be ignored. Surrendered German soldiers can be put to work as slave labor performing the most deadly of tasks. More than 2,000, most barely teenagers, are sent to Denmark and entrusted to Danish authorities, who assign them to clear the Danish coast of two million landmines. More than half will be killed or seriously injured.

The Germans had planted the bombs along the Danish coast in anticipation of an Allied invasion that never happened, and the captured squads of German youths, after some rudimentary training in defusing mines, are handed over to Sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller in a stunning performance), a man so consumed by revenge and rage that his response to his enemy is unmitigated sadism. He allows himself to reason that since Germany laid the mines, Germans should clear them.

Martin Zandvliet's 2015 "Land of Mine"
The fear we feel for the German boys as they crawl across the sand on their bellies is given some respite by the sheer beauty of the Danish coastal plains. The khaki colored military uniforms, the sand of the beaches, the grasses of the plains give Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s lyrical cinematography an almost monochromatic feel. The score by Sune Martin is a beautiful contrapunt to the harrowing suspense of the boys’ daily exercises.

Roland Moller as Sergeant Rasmussen in "Land of Mine"
Rasmussen is a complex man. We wish time and again that his day in, day out relationship to his charges, just boys after all, will punch a chink in his armor – just as some of us wish that our own politicians would find compassion for lives rent asunder by senseless war. We have seen children dead in the rubble of Aleppo, Syrian child refuges washed up on Mediterranean shores. UNICEF reports that, in new patterns of conflict, “[D]eliberate attacks against civilians are increasingly turning children into primary targets of war.” A United Nations report by Graça Machel, the UN Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, notes that “Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers.” When will we ever learn? “So it goes,” punctuates Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” with the doomed knell of futility.

* World War II Military Losses from All Causes
Allies: United States 407,300; United Kingdom 383, 700; Soviet Union 8,668,000-11,400,000
Axis Powers: Germany 4,440,000-5,318,000; Italy 319,200 nationals and approximately 20,000 conscripted African; Japan 2,100,000-2,300,000.

February 21, 2017


“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
                ~~Chuck Close

“Oh bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.”
                ~~Leonard Cohen, “The Window”

“Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea –
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?”
~~John Ashbery, “My Philosophy of Life”

Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Paterson” – about a poet named Paterson who drives a bus for a living in Paterson, New Jersey – is concerned not simply with poetry and the craft of prosody, but with the very nature of language itself. Not only do other poets inhabit “Paterson” – a rap artist who composes in a laundromat, a 10-year-old girl, a Japanese poet on a pilgrimage to Paterson, home of William Carlos Williams – but the film is teeming with myriad varieties of linguistic rhythm and style: in street talk; in conversations on the bus (guy talk, kid talk, would-be anarchist talk, old lady talk); in conversations in the neighborhood watering hole (bar stories, lovers’ quarrels, wifely scolds) – each is a kind of quotidian poetry in itself.

“Paterson” – the film, the character, the town – is an unveiled reference to William Carlos Williams’s epic poem “Paterson,” also about Paterson, New Jersey, the town in which Williams lived and practiced medicine. In the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Wallace Stevens, Williams sought to reject European poetic diction for a distinctly American idiom drawn from the inflections of everyday speech and conveyed through free verse cadences. At the height of his critical acclaim, Williams published the collection “Spring and All” in 1922, the year that T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” appeared, eclipsing Williams’s achievement. In his “Selected Essays” Williams would write, “Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.”

For his epic poem “Paterson,” published in five volumes from 1946-1958, in a departure from his lyric method as he approached his latter years, Williams developed a collage-like documentary approach. In a press release for the publication of Book IV, in 1951, Williams described as the central theme of the poem “the resemblance between the mind of modern man and the city.” He wanted the poem to “speak for us in a language we can understand.”

Jarmusch, too, uses every tool in his writer/director arsenal to draw us in to a language we can understand. On the popular low end, Jarmusch delights in sight gags, hyperbole and understatement, taboo, slapstick, mistaken identity. On the literary high end, he pulls out all the stops: aphorisms, doppelgängers, archetypes, negative capability, paradox. His favorite tropes are synecdoche in which a part of something refers to its whole or vice versa and metonymy in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name but by a name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept. He always employs episodic sequences, which give his stories the structure of classic quest narratives and confers upon even the most commonplace characters, if not mythic status, at the very least the standing of an Everyman – the ordinary individual who faces extraordinary circumstances.

Jarmusch is always awash in allusion and doubling, and twins abound in “Paterson.” Directed outward, Jarmusch films are veritable troves of references to artists, poets, writers, musicians, film directors, scientists, et al., whether through incidental mention (Adam’s wall of fame in “Only Lovers Left Alive” or Doc [Barry Shabaka Henley] the bartender’s in “Paterson”) or direct advertence (like William Blake in “Dead Man”). They are just as packed self-referentially; the oeuvre – in which actors, for example, share names with characters who reference actual people and previous Jarmusch characters – alludes to itself in a mise-en-abyme on many levels. In his first film, “Permanent Vacation,” the main character is Chris Parker – played by Chris Parker – whose artistic doppelgänger is the jazz musician Charlie Parker. Adam Driver’s incarnation of Paterson is beautifully subtle, expressive, and deeply felt, but it is no accident that the actor cast for the role is named Adam Driver: Adam and Eve are the titular vampires of “Only Lovers Left Alive” in Jarmusch’s last film, and Paterson is a driver of a bus. 

“Paterson” takes place over the course of a week, each sequence structured by the arc of a day and the rhythms of the hours. We meet Paterson on Monday. He wakes each morning midway between 6:00 and 6:30, reaches for his wrist watch, checks the time, puts it on and kisses his lover (Golshifteh Farahani) before getting out of bed. Her name is Laura, like Petrarch’s muse, and the sweethearts share a secret microcosm of their own special making.

Paterson eats Cheerios from a small glass bowl and thinks of words, leaves the house with his lunch pail, walks through the neighborhood – putting words together in his mind – headed to the old factory district where the bus garage sits, steals a few moments to write in his notebook, checks out with the bus manager Donny (Rizwan Manji), then starts his engine and drives out into the macrocosm that is Paterson. Each day Paterson returns to the little world he makes with Laura and his little basement desk arrayed with a library of poets – mostly the New York School, but “Infinite Jest” is there, too.

Laura is something of a naif and most comfortable in black and white, figuratively and literally. She is an extrovert who rarely goes out. He is an introvert who is very much of the world. She dreams, he is: a fundamental, existential difference. The couple seem to adore one another, and he writes achingly beautiful poetry about her, but art is one thing and the daily sharing of a life with another flawed individual is something else altogether. (One of those love poems ends: “How embarrassing.”) Laura is mercurial, dreaming of creating cupcakes one day, imagining herself a famous country western star the next. Driver’s range of expression allows us to see Paterson’s genuine love for Laura, but it also betrays his frustration, sometimes even hurt, when her self-involvement makes her insensitive.

Place typically functions as a character in a Jarmusch film, and the world of Paterson is a very Jarmusch-esque place. Originally inhabited by the Acquackanonk tribe of the Lenape Nation, the area was first claimed by the Dutch to become the New Netherlands, then by the British to become the Province of New Jersey. Located on the power source of the 77-foot-high Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson became the first planned industrial city in the United States in 1791, making it a destination for immigrant laborers, particularly Italian weavers drawn to the textile industry, especially silk production. Indeed, by the early 19th century, Paterson was known as “Silk City.” By the 20th century, the harsh conditions in the factories fomented a labor revolt, and in 1913, labor leaders organized a six-month-long silk industry strike, ostensibly for an eight-hour day and minimum age restrictions. Concerns regarding working conditions, however, were secondary to the overarching fears that echo the anxiety of today’s blue collar worker. In 1911, in nearby Clifton, New Jersey, mill owners had installed a multiple-loom system that required fewer workers. The Paterson strike, predominantly fueled by fear of job loss, failed because adaptation to the new technology was necessary to make Paterson’s mills competitive. Resistance to the multiple-loom system would have put the Paterson mills out of business altogether.

More than any other American director, Jim Jarmusch understands America as a melting pot reflected in his casts and characters. Today, Paterson is home to some of the largest immigrant communities in the United States: Bangladeshi, Turkish, Arab, Palestinian, Albanian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Peruvian. It is home to the second-largest population by percentage of Muslims in the United States, estimated at 25,000-30,000. As a haven for aliens and outsiders, the very setting of the film speaks volumes to the Jarmusch project, which inevitably incorporates characters – played by actors – who are themselves outsiders: here Laura as an immigrant and Paterson as a poet, certainly an outsider avocation in 21st century America. Indeed, the film is punctuated with the question, “Are you a poet?” to which Paterson always answers not simply, “No,” but, “No, I’m just a bus driver.” Yet Jarmusch is telling us, as he has in more than a dozen films before, it is true and honorable and good to be a poet.

The poems in “Paterson” were written by Ron Padgett (with the exception of the 10-year-old girl’s poem “Water Falls,” which Jarmusch wrote). Padgett is among a group of poets considered the second generation of New York School poets, the original school of which grew out of the influence of William Carlos Williams’s direct conversational style and urbane wit. The New York School of poetry paralleled the New York School of abstract expressionist painting and the poets were friends of the painters, among them Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns. Surrealism and the modernist interest in stream of consciousness (Williams began work on “Paterson” after reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) shaped their technique, as well. Along with Williams, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and the poet under whom the second generation studied, Kenneth Koch, made up the New York School. In addition to Padgett, the second generation includes Ted Barrigan, Joseph Ceravolo, Frank Lima, Joe Brainard, Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Tom Savage. Perhaps Jarmusch’s film will lead some of us back to rediscover the power of these poets’ works.

Poetry flows through Paterson – the film, the character, the town – like the Great Falls to which our poet repairs. The craft – the over and over of it day in, day out – is first and foremost the craft of reflection, and Frederick Elmes’s expressive cinematography caresses the reflection in which Paterson the poet is absorbed. The glass of the bus windshield reflects the streets of Paterson; the water of the Great Falls reflects the natural world around it; even the puddles in the girl’s poem “Water Falls” reflect.

Jarmusch has a fascination with the flâneur, and Paterson’s poetry grows out of his being in the world of society that he watches and eavesdrops on in a state of heightened awareness. He traverses the man-made world of urban architecture (the art we live in, walk in, travel through) as well as the world of nature each day, every day. SQÜRL’s music (Carter Logan and Jim Jarmusch) gives Paterson’s perambulations and his daily exit from the depot an almost holy quality. For the poet, that holiness is forged through the crucible of language. Jarmusch understands that we each manipulate language to make narrative sense of life as lived. We do not merely state what happened. We tell a story, which is to say, we do nothing less than create myth – a story that is bigger than life in its episodic configuration. When the bus breaks down, a boy asks “Did it run out of gas?” “No. Just an electrical problem.” “Sabotage probably,” the boy ominously suggests. With each retelling of this story, one after another of Paterson’s listeners speculates, it could have “turned into a fireball!” No mere bus breakdown this. No, it could have been a conflagration. “Story, finally,” the celebrated children’s author Lloyd Alexander observed, “is humanity’s autobiography.” Paradoxically, when tragedy does befall our poet, he meets it with silence, until a Mysterious Stranger (Masatoshi Nagase) directs him back toward reflection and emotion recollected in tranquility.

In select theaters
Netflix: April 2017
Redbox: April 2017
Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 h 58m